Archaeological excavations carried out in advance of a new hall at Chadwell St Mary Primary School in 1996 discovered the earliest evidence so far of the real origins of the settlement in the village of Chadwell St. Mary, one of 15 Thameside parishes that make up the Borough of Thurrock.
Archaeological collections in Thurrock Museum suggested there was a high probability that ancient settlements remains might be discovered after Palaeolithic flint axes were discovered in gravel quarries to the east of the village as well as a later Roman settlement discovered near the parish church and at Palmer's 6th Form College to the west of the village.
Evidence locally suggested that many early settlements were deliberately sited on hill top positions in the prehistoric, Roman and Saxon times, partly for defence and partly for ease of agricultural development as the marsh land below was not inhabitable due to tidal flooding. The school site is in just such a position close to the crest of the hill overlooking the Thames valley below and was perhaps also sited on a pedestrian route way following along the high ground towards modern day East Tilbury village and a crossing point of the Thames to Higham in Kent.
The Essex County Council archaeology team spent two weeks trial trenching the area of the new school hall. Having removed the tarmac and gravelled playground of the 1914 built school and removing the shallow sub soils to reveal the natural gravel geology of the Thames river terraces, darker subsoils of infilled features and some natural colour differences in the gravel could be detected. These features were then hand dug to discover the layers of infill and any associated artefacts which could lead to the interpretation of when settlement took place here.
The most interesting discovery was the complete site of a Saxon sunken floored hut, a type known from previous Thurrock excavations notably at Mucking, but examples have been excavated at West Tilbury, Orsett and North Stifford. This house type is paralleled in Holland and Germany the homeland of the Germanic tribes who invaded us in the late 4th century.
The hut known as a Grubenhaus (pit hut) consists of a rectangular pit dug to a depth of 1 metre below the old land surface, its dimensions being about 5m by 3m. The roof structure, constructed from two large vertical poles joined with a horizontal ridge pole, very much a tent shaped roof, which would be completed with a thatch finish. There is no survival of the roof, however the two large post holes, which anchored the two upright posts, that hold the ridge pole to support the roof were discovered at each end of the long axis of the hut.
As is typical for archaeological sites crude shards of hand made pottery vessels were found. these were made with both distinctive 'grass tempered and sandy fabrics' dug from local clay sources and fired hard in bonfire clamps. Likewise fired hard clay objects including a loomweight from weaving activities on a loom, and a spindle whorl for producing woollen thread, were discovered in the hut during excavation. This also shows that sheep or goats were being herded for wool and meat, while it is known that the bones of some animals would be used to make combs and handles for knives during this period.
A layer of charcoal remains within the backfill of the hut of Saxon origin included barley, wheat, oats, rye and a pulse crop probably of peas also an Apple and Bramble seed were identified. This gives some clues to the types of food crops being grown close bye as well as natural species being harvested to supplement the diet.
The finds are now at Thurrock Museum having been carefully cleaned and catalogued by the archaeologists before they were handed over with a report produced on the excavation, finds and interpretation of the settlement at Chadwell St Mary.
Dating from the pottery, suggests that the hut was constructed and used sometime during the 6th century AD, this house type ranges from the late 4th century although by the 8th - 9th century they become less common, some examples are known from around the Norman invasion by King William in 1066 AD and up to the 13th century. It is probable the hut was used for weaving, maybe the living quarters were in other huts or in rectangular ground level timber hall buildings which is the other type of house recognised at this time.
Over 200 grubenhauser and 20 rectangular hall buildings were located during the excavations at Mucking an adjacent parish to Chadwell St. Mary, this site is one of the earliest settlements in Britain of the Anglo-Saxons and included two cemeteries containing warriors, buried with their weapons as well as the pioneer families, male, female and children who died between the 4th and 8th centuries. The Mucking material is now housed in the British Museum.
Jonathan Catton, Thurrock's heritage & Museum Officer said, "This is very exciting discovery as it demonstrates the earliest real evidence of Chadwell St Mary's beginnings in Saxon times. We can start to construct the chronological development and interpret the first settlement patterns and how people lived and worked off the local natural resources. Even the name Thurrock is Saxon in origin, being a descriptive part for the bottom of the boat where the dirty water collects! It also remind us how through invasion new cultures, fashions and buildings were introduced to Thurrock a pattern which occurred before this time and afterwards and still continues."
The school will now have an exciting resource when they do the 'Invaders' topic in the National Curriculum history section, perhaps they could reconstruct a hut in there playing field and use it for history lessons!" Thurrock Museum has some Saxon material on display and for those interested a scale model of a similar hut to that discovered at Chadwell St. Mary is in the Saxon case.
- Chadwell St Mary County Primary School Site, Essex County Council, Field Arch. Unit, July 1999
- A Saxon Building at Chadwell St Mary
- Primary School, 1996. Essex Archaeology and History No. 29. (1998)
- Various articles on The Mucking Excavations
- Panorama, Journal of Thurrock Local History Society